When I started submitting to literary journals, it was mostly ink and paper. I must have filled hundreds of manila envelopes with my manuscripts, stamped so many self-addressed envelopes, at least half of which were never returned. What was returned, when the editors bothered to respond, was a paper slip: “We regret to inform you,” blah blah blah. On a rare occasion, there’d be a note from the editor–we really liked this but the ending falls apart/we love your voice/we can’t accept this piece but please submit to us again.
Nowadays, it’s all online. Some places kept paper submissions going longer than others, but I’m pretty sure they’ve all phased it out now. This actually makes it a lot easier for writers to submit; the various online submission managers are easy to use and help you keep track of what you’ve submitted and how it was received. You no longer get rejected with a paper slip, which, if you’re one of those people who makes the best of rejection by turning it into art, is probably pretty disappointing. But think of all the trees it’s saving! Because, man, do literary magazines get a lot of submissions. Even the small ones. The pile of paper would be staggering.
Anyway, like I said: submitting is easy. You don’t need me to walk you through the steps it takes to get your work to an editor, because the internet will do that for you. However, as a former fiction editor and assistant managing editor for a literary journal, I can offer you some insights on how to help make sure your work is well received.
Send your best work.
Most journals say this in their submission guidelines, and it’s true. Only send work you’re really confident about; if you’re not sure you love it, you’re probably right. And if you think maybe you’ll send it and get feedback from an editor to help you make it better, you’re probably mistaken. Most stories get rejected with a standard form letter. Even if you get a nice rejection, you won’t get in-depth feedback; the editors don’t have time, and they don’t want to lead you on and make you believe that if you just fix these things, they’ll publish you. If your story was close enough to publication for that to be true, the editor would probably accept it and then work with you on edits before the issue went to print.
Then again, be brave.
Don’t be meek; don’t hold back from submitting because your work isn’t perfect. There’s no such thing.
Write a good cover letter.
What is a good cover letter? It isn’t long. It doesn’t include your life story or a synopsis of the piece you’ve sent for consideration. It is polite, to the point, and includes a brief bio of the type that would appear on the contributors’ page of the magazine. Like so:
To the editors of XYZ Magazine*,
Thank you for considering my short story** “My Story” for publication. It is approximately 7,000 words long***.
I recently earned my MFA in fiction from The Big University. My work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, Zoetrope: All Story, and elsewhere.****
I appreciate your time and consideration.*****
*You don’t need to bother looking up their names if it’s based out of a university; the staff changes each year and the first people reading it will actually be interns. I can’t speak for the editors of other publications eg Zoetrope, The Atlantic, etc. but I would imagine the process is similar and that editor whose name you looked up will only see it if your MS makes it past a couple underlings and into the editor’s hands–an editor who will not read your cover letter.
**Not entirely necessary these days since submission managers sort stories by genre, but occasionally a submitter will mis-submit and it’s nice for the editor to be able to check the cover letter to be sure that this piece that really feels like nonfiction is actually fiction, and not just in the wrong inbox.
***This number should be on the manuscript, too, but it’s nice to have in the cover letter in case the editors are scrambling to find a certain number of pages to fill an upcoming issue. (This happens from time to time; editors will search the slush for names they know from previous submission or publication and temporarily disregard the first-come-first-serve style of the slush.) If they have three pages to fill and your story is twenty pages long, they won’t bother opening the file until they’re ready to go back to reading normally.
****These credentials won’t really help your story be published, but it will get editors excited to read it if they respect the publications listed. But seriously, don’t lie here. If your work is accepted, the editors will find out and will think ill of you. And if your story isn’t right for the journal (which isn’t always an issue of “good” or “bad”–different editors have different aesthetics) it will be rejected regardless of your resume. Also, note the inclusion of only three journals “and elsewhere.” We don’t need your full list of publications, just enough to get an idea of your publication history. And if you don’t have a publication history, don’t worry: every writer has a first publication.
*****That’s just nice.
Don’t be crazy.
Crazy is including a huge block-letter copyright notice at the beginning of your story, or any copyright notice at all–assuming your work is so fantastic we’d obviously try to steal it. We have no motivation to steal work, especially if the journal doesn’t pay, but beyond that it’s highly doubtful your work is so good it inspires thievery.
Crazy is using lots of weird fonts for emphasis or to delineate separate characters’ sections. If the writing is good, you don’t need weird fonts. Just use Times New Roman or something similar, 12 point, and for goodness’ sake don’t use Comic Sans or you will be mocked.
Crazy is responding to a rejection with a plea for publication, or an argument.
Crazy is sending haiku to a serious poetry journal (unless, I suppose, you’re really good at haiku–is anybody really good at haiku?).
Crazy is telling yourself you will submit to a certain number of journals each week/month/year, regardless of whether your work is ready.
Crazy is contacting the editors a month after you send your work in demanding a response when the website clearly states a 4-6 month response time.
Read the journal you’re submitting to–maybe.
Let’s be honest: you’re going to submit to journals you’ve never read. While I do think any writer submitting to literary journals needs to be reading literary journals, you can’t possibly read them all. Also, when you read in the submission guidelines that you should read the journal to get an idea of what they publish, that’s a little misleading. You’d have to read an awful lot of their books to get a good picture, but even then the staff of literary journals is constantly shifting, so even if the editor-in-chief has a pretty specific style, the editors feeding him or her potential pieces do not. Plus, what they think is their style and what you think is their style might differ–you notice that they seem to print a lot of traditional third person prose about families in the northeast but maybe they chose those pieces because they liked the way the story turned at the end–a detail you might miss. Not that it’s that simple, but that’s another reason not to over-analyze it. I’ve been told by several editors that I would be a perfect fit at Cream City Review–editors who don’t work there. And while most of the stories I’ve submitted there have gone on to be published elsewhere, Cream City Review has standard rejected every piece I’ve sent them.
Obviously, literary journals can have l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong response times (that 4-6 month estimate is just that: an estimate). So send them and forget about them. Allow yourself to be surprised when you get a response.
But there’s more than one kind of patience. You need to be patient with yourself. Your writing needs time to evolve; your personality and your personal experience factor into your writing as much as anything, and no matter how talented you are, you might need to grow as a person in order for your creative work to shine. You also might need to read more books, to get imprint the sense memory of narrative. So much of what you write, though you don’t intend it to be, is just practice. So many pages will end up in the trash. This might not be true of every writer–but yeah, most of them.
So happy submitting, people. I hope you’re writing every day and getting your work out there. And honestly, I wish I could read it–being a fiction editor was a lot of fun and certainly my favorite job so far, even though I wasn’t paid for it.
Footnote re: simultaneous submissions: I usually send one manuscript to three journals at a time. Some say “no simultaneous submissions,” because they don’t want any competition for a piece if they decide to accept it, but that can mean missing other opportunities so I usually simultaneously submit anyway–the chances of getting a piece published in any given journal is pretty slim, even for a good piece. And it’s easy enough to withdraw your story from consideration if it gets accepted and it’s still out at other journals; the submission managers all have “withdraw” buttons.